Nan Madol

Image: A view of southern Pohnpei, near Nan Madol.

Long ago, nearly a thousand years ago, two brothers, Olsihpa and Olsohpa, came from the west to Pohnpei, hoping to unite the warring clans of Pohnpei under one chief. They began searching for a place to build their fortress. Apparently unsatisfied with all of the actual land in Pohnpei, they decided to build artificial islets from huge basalt boulders and columns. They tried building in many spots around Pohnpei that just wouldn’t work for the construction (or maybe the existing chiefs chased them away…). But finally, they found Madolenihmw, on the southern end of Pohnpei. This spot was perfect. Here, they may have seen an older city under the sea, where the gods dwelled. One of the gods who dwelled nearby was Nan Somohl, an eel god, to whom Olsihpa and Olsohpa were particularly devoted. They fed him turtles every year. Over the course of a couple hundred years, they built their city, Nan Madol, on the edge of the island of Temwen in southern Pohnpei.

Paddling around the outer ring of the ruins.  The mangroves to the left are hiding the ruins of an ancient coconut oil production facility.
Paddling around the outer ring of the ruins. The mangroves to the left are hiding the ruins of an ancient coconut oil production facility.

Some of the fortress walls are built from giant boulders weighing as much as 90 tons. Most are built from huge, hexagonal, basalt columns, quarried from sites all over Pohnpei. But Olsihpa and Olsahpa simply flew the huge boulders across the islands to build their fortress. They constructed over 90 artificial islets, connected by intriguing channels through the mangroves, and stacked columns, Lincoln log style,to build temples, residential quarters, coconut oil production facilities, and bath houses. Olsihpa declared himself the Saudeleur, the ruler of all Pohnpei, and, at his death (a couple hundred years later), Olsohpa became Saudeleur.

For the next 500 years, the Saudeleur dynasty reigned tyrannically over Pohnpei, exacting demanding tributes from all of the Pohnpeian people. But they made a mistake. They grew angry with the thunder god, Nahnsapwe, for bellowing and roaring too much. They imprisoned him, but he escaped and fled to the east, saved by a needlefish when his canoe sank, and landed in what is now Kosrae. There, he fed a fruit to a mortal woman from his own clan, the Under the Breadfruit clan, and she became pregnant. Later, she gave birth to a son, Isokelekel.

The main attraction in Nan Madol.  The main tomb of the Saudeleurs is hidden in the inside.
The main attraction in Nan Madol. The main tomb of the Saudeleurs is hidden in the inside.

Isokelekel heard much of the tyranny of the Saudeleurs as he grew up, and vowed to avenge his father. He took 333 warriors with him and sailed for Nan Madol. War broke out between Isokelekel and the Saudeleurs. The Saudeleurs had the upper hand, but Isokelekel’s men would not give up. One of his fiercest warriors speared his own foot to the ground–retreat was not an option. Isokelekel’s warriers rallied. The slung the 333 slingstones that still lie on the islet of Idehd. They drove off the Saudeleurs, chasing the reigning Saudeleur into the Senpehn River, where he turned into a blue fish.

Isokelekel became the first Nahnmwarki, or paramount chief, of Pohnpei, and set in place the hierarchy that still reigns today.

Paddling the ruinsNan Madol, primarily a place where nobility resided, was inhabited until the early 1800’s. It was abandoned around the time the first Europeans arrived, and no one is sure exactly why, though the difficulty of growing things on artificial coral islets, epidemics, and the arrival of Europeans likely played a role. Early missionaries found people who remembered a time when Han Madol was heavily populated.

Only some of the ruins are maintained today and only 30 islets have been surveyed and mapped in detail by archaeologists. Over the weekend, we sailed around to the south side of Pohnpei to visit the ruins of the ancient fortress, and explored the mysterious mangrove channels by packraft. The photos tell the story best, so here they are!

We’ll likely leave Pohnpei in a few days, so you’ll probably hear from us next when we reach Guam. Unless something really exciting happens before then–you never know.

A close-up look at the basalt columns that are stacked to create the buildings.
A close-up look at the basalt columns that are stacked to create the buildings.
Looking back out from Nan Duwas toward the mangrove moat.
Looking back out from Nan Duwas toward the mangrove moat.
A giant breadfruit tree among the ruins.
A giant breadfruit tree among the ruins.
Snorkeling the outside of the ruins.
Snorkeling the outside of the ruins.

Back in the northern hemisphere

Image: Now that we have mast steps, we can do this. Back in PNG, on the way to the Fenny Islands.

We made it back to the northern hemisphere with a relatively easy 10-day crossing from Buka to Pohnpei, Micronesia! The North Star now winks at us just above the horizon ahead, while the Southern Cross waves at us from behind. The sun has been south of us for some time now, and it will not cross our path again on our travels. Crossing the equator feels like a significant milestone, but that leaves us with about 6,000 miles to go—a long way when you average 5 knots on a good day. We’ll need to cover that distance over the next 7 months to get ourselves back to a safe spot in Alaska by August, so that we can tie up the boat for the winter and find ourselves jobs. (Speaking of which, if you happen to know of any jobs opening up in Alaska about September, we’re probably interested. We’re confident that our sailing adventure has significantly enhanced our job skills. I’ve learned, for instance, that I can sit in the same place for much longer than I ever dreamed myself capable, and have demonstrably improved my ability to perform repetitive tasks, repeatedly—essential skills in an office environment.)

Our passage got off to a bit of a rocky start, though, on the whole, the wind did us a lot of favors. We left Buka with a great breeze, but our breeze turned into a massive thunderstorm by nightfall, with little wind but buckets of rain and uncomfortably sloppy seas. With no moon, the night was oppressively, inkily, dark. In the thick clouds, you cannot distinguish the next line of rain from the clouds above you, or the sea from the sky until the sky is shattered for an instant by a blinding curtain of lightening. When it rains hard, the rain splatters a speckled film of phosphorescence on the waves nearby, and that is all you can see in the black night. You squint through thick raindrops at the arrow atop the mast to guide your steering when the wind is too light for the boat to steer itself in bouncy seas. The boat, which is shaped much like a rocking horse under water, pitches and bucks wildly in the chop. Altogether, the darkness, the disorienting lightening and phosphorescence, the wetness, and the rocking made for a pretty unpleasant few hours. Luckily, I got to hand the tiller over to Rob an hour into it and he was well-rinsed, and the lightening finished, by the end of his three hour watch.


Just one more PNG shot before we get too far away.  Kula canoe paddlers back at the festival in Alotau.
Just one more PNG shot before we get too far away. Kula canoe paddlers back at the festival in Alotau.

Late on the second day out, we checked the weather forecast and were not thrilled with a couple of low pressure systems that had appeared on our course, so we decided to retreat and backtrack to an atoll to wait for the weather to settle a bit. A strong current runs through the only pass, a small break in the reef just deep enough for a boat to enter the atoll. We were fortunate to make it through the pass while the current was weak, but with a strong wind against the current, big waves were building in the pass. One of them crashed over my back as I was standing at the tiller, steering forcefully to keep us on course. Rob, not too surprisingly, decided the best spot for him was on top of the spreaders, for the best view and maximum gut-tumbling motion. Why wouldn’t you climb up to the spreaders for a rough entry?

Once inside, things calmed down, but we wondered whether we had chosen well. In an atoll, there is little land to protect you from the wind, just a reef to stop the waves. That means you are generally protected from the wind as long as it does not change direction, but when it shifts, waves build across the lagoon and you may also have to move. That’s not so easy if the shift happens at night, as you have to negotiate shallow patches that are rarely charted in detail. In this lagoon, with the strong currents in the pass, we could not leave the atoll until the wind let up, so we were a bit trapped.

Pete on the first pitch of his new route, Dim Dim dreams of Sirenians.  Rob likes this shot because you can see the boat in the background.  But I bet Pete would prefer one that highlights his route better.  And his moves.
Pete on the first pitch of his new route, Dim Dim dreams of Sirenians. Rob likes this shot because you can see the boat in the background. But I bet Pete would prefer one that highlights his route better. And his moves.

But, we found a decent spot to anchor on the west side of the lagoon and took a nice, long nap while the wind built to near gale force. It would have made for speedy sailing, but we were worried the low would brew nasty squalls and might deepen. Lows are unpredictable in the tropics. We spent one night anchored there, and in the morning, the wind was calmer, but had shifted to the north. Waves were building from the wrong direction, so we decided we would see if the pass was navigable and make use of the wind if we could safely exit the atoll.

As Rob wrestled up the anchors, we were surprised to see a skiff (dinghy, banana boat, panga, call it what you like) just beyond the reef bashing into fairly rough seas. When we got closer to the pass, another skiff approached us and told us that a skiff had capsized the day before. Six people were missing. The missing skiff had left Buka at 3pm, about the time we were setting a second anchor because the wind was increasing. They nearly made it home. The skiff flipped in a wave as it was coming through the pass into the atoll. Three people, including the skipper, managed to reach the reef in the middle of the night and swam for the first island along the reef, calling for help from there, but the other six had not been found. There were no life jackets and no marine radio (there never are—there’s no money for them). The skipper, looking rather shell-shocked, was helping with the search. We, unfortunately, had not seen or heard anything, as we had been anchored a couple of miles away, but we agreed to follow the search boat and help however we could. They were going to retrieve the capsized boat, which had washed, or been dragged, onto the reef, and asked us to tow the boat back to the village for them. We did, and a couple of the men came back with us. They were cold and tired as they had been searching all night, and, with no idea where else to look, were reluctantly giving up the search. One of the men on board with us lost his mother, his father, his wife, and his young first-born child. We wished there was something more we could do to help, but the local boats had searched the inside of the lagoon and there was little hope outside. There was no safe place to anchor by the village, so we promised to look as we sailed, and left, disheartened, for Pohnpei.

A canoe sailing through the lagoon in the Conflict Group, PNG
A canoe sailing through the lagoon in the Conflict Group, PNG

For the rest of the passage, we were pretty lucky. It felt like a long trip, and we both rubbed our hands raw pulling on ropes to shorten and readjust sails in the perpetual squalls, but we had a favorable wind and moved well until about 20 miles south of the equator. Though we would have preferred a raft of Micronesian dancers and complimentary piña coladas, the equatorial welcoming committee instead greeted us with a couple of powerful squalls, and we ran across the equator at full speed. Then we spent a couple of days in light and fitful winds, with intensive squalls and lots of lightening, before we picked up the northeast trade winds somewhere around 3 degrees north. From there on, we had trade winds and speedy sailing on a reach (wind to the side), but lots of water on deck with waves splashing over the sides. Those waves get pretty spiteful; they sense it when your bum gets dry and quickly remedy your too comfortable situation. We had clear skies our last couple of nights out and kept our eyes on the horizon, watching the Big Dipper and waiting for the North Star to greet us.

On our tenth day out from the atoll, Pohnpei was a distant shadow on a cloudy horizon. We put up all the sail we could handle as our target took shape, grew greener, and gradually developed some contours. We pulled inside the barrier reef just as the enormous, fiery sun dropped down to kiss the horizon, and we dropped the anchor as the basalt cliffs above us turned pink in the afterglow.

We’ve been here for a couple of weeks now and are enjoying the breeze and the calm lagoon. We were surprised to find eight other sailboats here when we arrived; we didn’t see a single other sailboat in Papua New Guinea, and saw only a few in the Solomons. Most of the sailors here are Australian surfers. Pohnpei, apparently, has one of the best surf waves in the world—maybe even the second best. We hear it’s going to be amazing this week as some big swells come this way and the surfers fly in from Hawaii. But, the wave is too big for us. So, we’ve been enjoying some land opportunities, instead. There is actually some public land here, with a few trails that are open to the public—no guides required!—so we’ve been happy to go for a couple of hikes. One hike leads to a ridge strewn with Japanese artillery from World War II. Pohnpei was occupied by the Japanese at that time, and the Allied forces bombed the island heavily but never tried to take over. After the war, Pohnpei became a trust territory of the United States. It is now independent, one of the four states in the Federated States of Micronesia, but has a compact with the United States allowing benefits for Micronesians, such as the ability to work in the U.S., and insuring a decent flow of U.S. funding.

War canoe coming or us, Alotau, PNG.
War canoe coming or us, Alotau, PNG.

We also have free showers here, a rare treat, so we’ve been retraining our legs to run, a very painful effort. And those big, basalt cliffs that catch the sunset from the right vantage point even have a few sport climbing routes established on them, so we are eager to check those out. But the main attraction on Pohnpei is Nan Madol, an ancient Micronesian fortress built on artificial islands. We are plotting our visit to the fortress now, and will report back in a few days.

Until then, kaselehlia!

Pete, showing his stuff in the Trobriands.
Pete, showing his stuff in the Trobriands.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas photo 2013

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Buka, in the Autonomous Region of Bouganville, on the eastern edge of Papua New Guinea. Though Bouganville is still a part of PNG, its people identify more closely with Solomon Islanders than with Papuans, and have sought their independence since the 1960’s, when PNG was still under Australian colonial rule. In the late 1980’s, spurred by disputes over the Panguna mine in southern Bouganville, the movement for independence exploded into civil war. Landowners in the area of the mine demanded better environmental protection and $10 billion USD in compensation payments. Not surprisingly, their demands were not met. The Bouganville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was formed, and the mine shut down because of violence. The PNG government, unhappy with the loss of the mine revenue, which was about 45% of the country’s export earnings at the time, sent in its army. Tens of thousands of people were forced from their homes, villages and infrastructure were burned, innocent Solomon Islanders on nearby islands were killed for allegedly supporting the BRA, and the PNG prime minister was eventually pressured to resign after he hired foreign mercenaries to put down the BRA.

Peace was eventually reached and, in 2002, Bouganville was given autonomy, with plans for a referendum for an independent Bouganville by 2020.

Today, Bouganville is a much calmer province, though it is fiercely proud of its autonomy, and the conflict is far from forgotten as the province works toward independence and tries to figure out what to do about the still-closed Panguna mine. Buka, an island at the north end of Bouganville, is far from the mine site and grew into something of an administrative center during the civil war because of its relative safety. It remains a safe stop with lots of friendly faces and a few services. It is our last stop in PNG before we head north, across the equator, to Micronesia.

We arrived here a few days ago and some friendly men helped guide us to a safe anchoring spot in the intimidatingly strong currents of Buka Passage. We spent Christmas Eve sweating in the sunshine and feeling decidedly un-Christmas-y. But, we managed to track down some friends of friends who work for an aid group here in Buka, and had Christmas at their house. This was fortuitous, since we had run out of propane and couldn’t get our tanks filled in time to cook our own Christmas dinner. For an extra special Christmas treat, they even let us use their shower!

We lost Pete two days later, and now it’s just the two of us again. “Lost” might be misleading–Pete flew home, as scheduled, to return to his responsible life where is is eager to start his office job (soon). Before he left, he bought us ice cream and cheese, so we’ve been thoroughly spoiled for the holidays.

And now, we’ve filled our propane tanks (sort of), topped off our drinking water tanks with rainwater, lugged jugs of diesel back to the boat, said farewell to the friendly kids on shore (who miss Pete and his Polaroid terribly), and we’re about to spend our last kina on avocados at the market. We’ll leave for Micronesia in a couple of hours. It’s about 800 miles to Pohnpei, the island we’d like to reach, but we’ll be spending a big chunk of this passage in the doldrums, so we don’t expect a speedy sail. But, Rob greased the folding bike for exercise underway, and Pete left us with a jar of conversation topics, so we’re ready to hunker down for a couple of weeks if we have to.

Tagu koke, Papua New Guinea–thank you! We’ve had a great time here with friendly smiles, fantastic sailing canoes, energetic dancers, fascinating stories, giant manta rays, pilot whales, birds of paradise, big cliffs, lush trees, uninhabited islands, sky-shattering lightening, and a hint of witchcraft.

But now, we go NORTH!

Gona Gona Bobuana

That’s “good morning” in Dobu, one of Papua New Guinea’s more than 800 languages. It is one of several common languages in the Milne Bay Province, the southeast portion of PNG. Dobu, a small volcanic island, was the first stop in the area for European missionaries who translated the Bible into and began preaching in Dobu. The language spread throughout the province with Christianity. In addition to Dobu, most people in Milne Bay speak their local language, English, Tok Pisin (pidjin), and, on top of that, some people speak their parents’ languages (one parent likely comes from another area), their spouse’s language, and probably a couple of other languages handy for maintaining trading relationships. It’s rare to find someone who speaks less than 4 languages, and 8 is not uncommon. After the canoe festival in Alotau, we picked up a crew member, Rob’s kiwi friend, Pete, which has made it easier for us to pick our way through the barely charted waters of this part of the world. Pete has already kept busy bravely defending us from raskols and pukpuks (pidjin for pirates and crocodiles). The three of us have been slowly, painfully slowly-perpetually fighting the current with barely a whisper of a breeze slowly-exploring the islands around Milne Bay. We swam with giant manta rays at Gona Bara Bara Island, stalked nesting turtles at a remote atoll (we found turtles about to be eaten and nests that had been dug up, but were not lucky enough to find a turtle crawling ashore at night), tracked megapode nesting mounds (the mounds are mega, the birds are chicken-sized), hiked up to see the brilliantly-plumed Goldie’s bird of paradise at Normanby Island, and sleuthed out scorpion fish hiding on the rocky reefs in the Trobriands. Along the way, we learned that crocodiles and sharks are not dangerous. The animals themselves don’t eat people, they run away. It’s only when they are possessed through witchcraft that they eat people. We learned how to call sharks with coconut-shell-magic in the Trobriands. In another island, we learned that if you don’t follow the right customs when you make clay pots, the clay might run away and leave your island. And we learned a bit about shell money and the kula ring, a centuries old inter-island circle where shell money necklaces and armbands are perpetually exchanged, bringing much prestige to the holders of the items. The kula ring, and Milne Bay’s relatively calm waters, might be part of the reason there are still so many traditional sailing canoes on the waters here, but none in the other islands of the Pacific. We took a break from storying and stopped at uninhabited Hastings Island, an island of uplifted coral. As we dropped the anchor, the boys drooled over the 700 foot cliffs made of sharp coral limestone, while I stared into the beautiful, blue waters with a clear view to the bommies more than 70 feet below the surface. We explored some caves and snorkeled, then Pete eyed up the overhanging rock walls and picked his route. He boldly manned up around a bulge on a route he’s named “Dim Dim Dreams of Sirenians” (Dim Dim is the PNG word for white people). We’re pretty sure that makes Pete the pioneer of and leading world expert on rock climbing at Hastings Island. Rob tried to lead another route up an aesthetic crack, but Rob is not as manly as Pete and utterly failed. We had to leave before the boys could explore all the possibilities, as the anchorage is poorly protected and it started to get a bit bouncy. Our last stop in the Milne Bay province was the Trobriands, famous from Bronislaw Malinoswki’s detailed, World War I era anthropological studies. They are big on yams, carving, and trading here and live in very traditional villages with small huts and big yam storage houses made of sago palm and thatching. The people were interesting, the snorkeling was fantastic, and the boys got to shred their hands and toes climbing more sharp, overhanging coral limestone, but our experience was a bit mixed. A couple of nights ago, someone stole a snorkel and mask, a towel, and all the wet clothes we had hung out to dry overnight. We had an extra mask, but we’re down a snorkel, so Rob is practicing holding his breath. The loss of the clothing wouldn’t be such except that we’d already traded all our extra clothing for carvings and veggies. Now, the boys have no swimsuits. Rob is down to his last pair of not-so-swimming shorts, and poor Pete is stuck running around in his underwear. We’re now on our way to New Britain, and making very slow progress. But perhaps they will have a store there. One that sells swimming suits. The ladies are going to love Pete’s tan lines when he gets home.

In Papua New Guinea

We are sailing slowly into Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea this morning. Fast, but squally passage, and we’re now having to slow ourselves down to make sure we don’t arrive ahead of our 48-hour notice of arrival. In celebration of our arrival, we’ve translated “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into PNG pidjin for you. Enjoy (Note, you roll that “r” in “garem” so that it sounds almost like “got ’em”). It’s Rob’s new favorite song: Mary garem lilepela pikinini sip-sip, Pikinini sip-sip, Pinkinini sip-sip. Mary garem lilepela pikinini sip-sip Gras blon sip-sip same-same snow.

Trees, turtles, and farewell to the Solomons

At first glance the Pacific Islands look lush, beautiful, and untouched. But people have lived on just about every tiny strip of land in the Pacific that is inhabitable. When we sail into a rainforest- lined bay, which from a distance looks like a wilderness, the outlines of leaf huts behind the first rows of trees always emerge. People have an impact on the environment, and here in the Solomons it has been interesting to learn about some of the prominent resource issues, and thankfully, still see some healthy forests and reefs. The human effects on the environment aren’t just a modern issue. Early Pacific Islanders brought food crops and animals with them as they moved eastward to settle the islands. In some places, like the Marquesas, those plants out-competed the native flora and, although the islands are still covered in dense, intriguing jungle, many of the unique, native plants are now rare. Similarly, European explorers introduced rats, bugs, and birds, some intentionally, and some as hitchhikers, that had a devastating effect on native birds. Then began the sandalwood trade in Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia. Boats from Europe and America came to cut sandalwood trees, which were, and still are, sold to China where the heartwood is used for incense. The traders treated the locals miserably and clearcut the trees. In some cases, the traders would kidnap islanders who were out fishing in their canoes. They would take their captives to enemy villages and trade people for trees, leaving the captives to be eaten by their enemies. In Vanuatu, one of the major sources of sandalwood, people are now replanting trees so that they can be harvested on a smaller scale by villages. In the Solomon Islands, today, sandalwood is not the main trade, but logging is a major industry. On these large, mountainous islands, there are still many stretches of big trees-valuable tropical hardwoods much sought after by the logging industry. Native trees include ebony, rosewood, ironwood, mahogany, and a white wood that locals use for canoes. Teak, though not native, has been planted for harvest in timber plantations. The economy of the Solomon Islands depends heavily on logging, but the Solomon Islanders themselves see few benefits from the industry. In fact, one study showed that, for every cubic meter of logs, a land-owning clan shares only $3.00, while the government takes in $28.00, and the loggers leave with $130.00 (prior to export). (Ron Crocombe, The South Pacific, p. 298). There are few regulations in place in the Solomons to minimize the effects of logging in a country where many villagers drink directly out of streams and depend heavily on reef fish for sustenance. Loggers must acquire the rights to log from traditional landowners. When talking with some folks on Isabel, an island with intensive, ongoing logging, we learned that companies generally acquire the rights through bribery. They’ll pay off the “big men” with trips, hotels, and booze, and pay out the rest of the landowners with small cash (people in Isabel were signing papers for the equivalent of about $2.00 USD). That cash gets used up quickly, and promised long-term benefits, like jobs, schools, clinics, and roads, never materialize. Where there’s trouble with landowners, the companies pay off government ministers with direct bribes or shares in stock, and most government ministers and members of parliament now own substantial interests in the resource extraction industries at work in the Solomons. When the Solomon Islands prohibited raw log exports-a great policy that would have required logs to be milled within the Solomon Islands, keeping more of the jobs and money in the Solomons-industry got upset and paid substantial benefits to the minister of forestry, who immediately offered exemptions to the rule, allowing companies to export freshly-felled tree trunks to Asia, where they can process them at lesser expense. Likewise, policies and contracts requiring companies to hire loggers locally have been ignored or set aside. Instead, workers are imported, so that villages selling rights to their land do not even get the jobs they were promised in return. Where bribery doesn’t work to get around the rules and buy rights, death threats are not unheard of. (Crocombe, The South Pacific, pp.297-99, 481-82). Just as serious as the environmental and health effects is the divisiveness within communities. Land ownership does not work the same way in the South Pacific as it does in the western world, and owners do not always have full title to a particular piece of land. There is much dispute over complicated land ownership, and every development proposal seems to result in litigation among different individuals claiming traditional rights. This seems particularly problematic given that many people here cannot afford to pay school fees, but when there is a remote possibility of making money from land, they raise money for litigation against friends and family who also claim property rights. A few weeks ago, some folks in a village on southern Isabel, a village that is facing both logging and mining projects, talked to us about some of these problems. This is a village that sees so few tourists that, when we first arrived, a 12-year old boy asked me, “What’s wrong with your nose?” Unaware that there was a problem with my nose, I consulted Rob. He looked at me, then laughed and explained, “She’s white! It’s sunburned.” The next morning, a girl of a similar age was paddling home from school when Rob, overheating in the sun, jumped off the boat. “I’m surprised you can swim,” she remarked, “I thought you would sink.” Now, facing a village divided over logging and mining, some of the big men in the village are trying to bring tourists in to provide an alternative revenue source. The men told us that the logging has already split the community. Only the landowner where the logging is happening right now is getting money. Some of the women from the village are employed cooking and washing laundry, but not everyone is happy with the project. Since the people in this village are not the landowners, they have no say in the project, even though the logging is happening right on the edge of their gardens. They were even more worried about mining prospects, as a company has been surveying on land owned by the village, and paying small sums to landowners to sign away rights. The men are concerned about their drinking water, and their reefs and fish, as well as tension within the small village. The village is having trouble getting answers to their questions, because the representatives of the company, a Japanese company, say they do not speak English whenever the people try to get more information. Because land owners wield much power, a few people might be able to sell the rights for a project that will have negative effects for everyone, exacerbating tensions that already exist. In the face of all of these pressures, it’s not surprising that there is a lot of logging in the Solomons. Marovo Lagoon, the jewel of the Solomon’s tourism attractions, has seen its share of logging. Once on the short list for designation as a World Heritage site, the logging has had its effects and it is no longer considered for a designation. But, the logging is not obvious from everywhere and the underwater scenery is still spectacular. Because the Solomons is rich in resources, there are still many stretches of virgin rainforest, and, from the water, the islands appear thickly clad in jungle vegetation. Underwater, we’ve seen healthier reefs and more abundant fish here than in most of the Pacific. In some cases, the landowners have managed to fight these pressures to protect their resources. One great example is Tetepare, “the last wild island,” and probably our favorite stop in the Solomons. The landowners of Tetepare moved off the island about 150 years ago, back in the headhunting days, and it has remained largely uninhabited since. A small island with gentle terrain, it is densely forested with giant banyans and buttressed, tropical rainforest trees. There has been, and still is, significant pressure to log the island, but the land owners have, so far, kept those interests at bay and, instead, created a conservation area and scientific research station. The research station receives some funding through grants, and all revenues from the eco-lodge go to the Tetepare Descendants Association, a non-profit organization that uses the income to pay staff and, when possible, to provide scholarships covering school fees for descendants of the Tetepare landowners. Things aren’t perfect, and there are a few disgruntled members who would like to see more cash in hand, but most of the Tetepare descendants we met on the neighboring islands were happy that we stopped at Tetepare. We thought Tetepare was one of the best conservation areas in the Pacific. We’d grown a bit jaded on local conservation areas after seeking out marine reserves in other places, expecting great snorkeling, in only to find lackluster coral and lots of fishing happening right in the reserve. Eco-tourism, it seems, is mostly a catchy label. At Tetepare, however, the rangers are serious about their conservation area and patrol to enforce the rules. Those we spoke with were excited about the results of their monitoring. In the water, they’re seeing more fish, and bigger ones. On land, they see healthier populations of coconut crabs, and are proud to report the number of critically endangered leatherback turtles they’ve hatched and watched return to the water (leatherbacks, until recently, were one of their favorite foods). We thought the snorkeling was fantastic. A swarm of barracuda as long as my leg circled around me while monster yellow-striped sweetlips schooled below me. We counted more than 10 enormous bumphead parrotfish, a 4-foot long algae-eater that looks kind of like a blue submarine. These are all popular table-top fare that we don’t see in big groups most places, and we were pretty impressed that people are resisting the temptation here. Unfortunately, we did not get to see two of the big attractions-dugongs and leatherbacks. Until recently, several dugongs lived in the lagoon in front of the lodge. Over the past few years, a lot of the seagrass in the lagoon has disappeared, and the rangers are not sure why. Dugongs eat seagrass, so they’ve not been hanging around as much. For the leatherbacks, we were just a big too early. In the 2007 tsunami that hit the Western Province of the Solomons, Tetepare lost a lot of the leatherbacks’ nesting beach. The turtles are still coming, but the rangers have to carefully relocate all of the eggs, a job they take seriously and exercise with great care. Guests at Tetepare are allowed to tag along and watch the turtles nesting and hatching at night, but the turtles hadn’t yet started nesting while we were there, so we did not get to see any of these rare giants. But, we did get to see creepy saltwater crocodiles lurking in the mangroves near our boat, awkward hornbills flapping their huge black wings above us, a tiny cuscus clinging to a vine in the dark (they’re like possums, but cuter), and the 3-foot long goana, or monitor lizard, sunning on the beach. It was pretty exciting to see the first non-bird-bat-or-rat land animals we’ve seen since the Galapagos (not counting all the goats, pigs, and cows, of course, or the land animals in New Zealand, which you are supposed to hate because they are not native, but I liked them anyway). These critters can be found on some of the other islands as well, but they are harder to find (and we had not seen any cuscus or goanas) because gardens and logging have destroyed their habitat, and, in some cases, because people eat them. In Tetepare, the people believed that the last people left on the island became the goana, so they do not eat them. They also used to worship sharks and crocodiles, so they did not kill them either Since we spend so much time in the water, just having an opportunity to go for a bit of a hike to see a few big trees and a few of the land critters was a treat. Disappointed at missing the leatherbacks, we next sailed to neighboring Rendova, where the rangers told us that the turtles were nesting on the weathercoast. There is no safe spot to anchor near the nesting beach, however, so we tried anchoring on the other side, hoping to walk over to the turtle beach. It turned out to be a long walk, complicated with tribal boundaries, the difficulties of convincing a local that some “waetfelas,” even women, actually can walk on a flat beach for more than 10 minutes at a time, and the fact that you cannot walk anywhere in Melanesia without a guide. We never made it to the turtle beach. But, we did manage a decent walkabout to “look-look place.” A friendly man led us from an old logging camp along the beach to the next village down. Along the way, we waded across two murky rivers. The second one, he assured us as he stepped into thigh-deep water, was not deep and had no crocodiles. We stopped to say hello to his dad, who asked if our legs were sore from the long walk. Then we started on the return trip, shortly after which our friendly guide picked up the pace considerably, and I wondered if he was in a hurry and I’d been rude not to take the cue earlier when he kept asking Rob if I was still okay. The reason for the sudden speed walking became clear when we hit the first river. While we’d been walking, a significant squall had passed through and the river had flashed. “We go easy-easy,” coached our guide, as he stepped into muddy water up to his neck. “Okay, now we go quicktime.” “Are we going quicktime because there really are crocodiles?” I whispered to Rob. “Definitely.” “And because it’s so muddly I can’t see my hand, or a crocodile, two inches below the surface?” “Absolutely. You stay right next to me.” “Okay, but I can’t reach the bottom unless you let go.” Right after we crossed, a couple of tiny 10 year olds on their way home from school shed their clothing and plunged in, swimming across the river. As far as we can tell, there’s a downpour at least once a day in this part of the Solomons, so the river probably floods about every three days. The only road to school goes right through the rivers, but it’s okay, because crocodiles only eat people if you bother them. We’re getting ready to leave the Solomons to head to Papua New Guinea now. I had hoped to post some photos from the Solomons before we go, but the internet in Gizo is so slow I gave up and decided to post from the ham radio instead, so I’m sorry for all the pictureless text. And if we’ve been slow to respond to emails from any of you, we’re very sorry…there just isn’t enough internet to go around.

Sailing the Squallomons

Now that we’ve been in the Solomons for a couple of months, it’s probably time to play catch up a bit. This will be a bit of a time warp post, with a bit of rewinding and fast forwarding to hit the highlights. First, we rewind to leaving Vanuatu. On our way north from Luganville, we made a couple of quick stops in the Banks Islands of northern Vanuatu. There, a pod of melon headed whales led us into Rowa Island, a stretch of sand barely sticking out above the water, with a few coconut palms clinging tenaciously to the high point. We dropped into the clear, blue, lagoon waters and quickly lost count of all the rays gliding gracefully above the white sand, but the highlight was the strange, writhing, spot-covered zebra shark Rob found while I was absorbed in my perpetual quest to find a sea horse. One island later, we sat storying with Chief David. His people are originally from Rowa Island, but moved to the steep-sided sunken volcanic crater of Ureparapara long ago because the low-lying beaches of Rowa offer no protection from hurricanes. He recognized our zebra shark immediately when we showed him the photo in our fish book, and he asked us whether it was sleeping on the bottom or swimming. “He can’t bite you,” Chief David said,” so sometimes, when he’s on the bottom, we tie a rope around his tail.” “Then do you kill him and eat him?” We asked. “Sometimes, but he’s not as good as the other ones. Sometimes we just make fun. Then we let him go.” It’s true, the zebra shark is a plankton eater, so he is not pointy-toothed, but he is over 11 feet long, and he gave me an evil glare when I swam close for a mug shot. Ureparapara was our last stop in Vanuaut, and from there, we had a short, 2-night sail to Ndendo Island, our first stop in the Solomon Islands. It was a pleasant, fast sail until the second night, when Rob must have done something to anger Zeus, who spent the early hours of the morning, Rob’s watch, hurling vindictive lightning bolts between us and our destination. Where there’s lighting, there are ugly squalls-sudden blasts of strong wind, torrential rain, no wind in between, and lots of sail changes. Since Rob generally refuses to ask for help at night, even when he should, I turned over the watch just before it started raining, and tucked myself into bed below while Rob got to spend the next few hours running from lightening and managing the squalls. I thought about coming out to help since I wasn’t sleeping, but he didn’t ask for help, and it sounded like it was really raining hard out there… In all that fussing with sails for the squalls, the big jib (the sail that goes up front) flogged itself a large new rip along a stress point, and we spent two full days in Ndendo sewing a shiny, new patch over it. But, once we tucked into the calm anchorage in Gracioso Bay, Ndendo Island, we fell in love with the Solomons. The houses are a bit bigger here, and are raised up on stilts because of tides and hurricanes. We noticed more concrete houses and iron roofs, and not as many houses woven from leaves and cane as we had seen in Vanuatu (though the people acknowledge that traditional, “leaf houses” are better suited to the climate). The canoes are larger, and a bit more artfully carved, but they do not use outriggers here. The people are every bit as welcoming as the Ni-Van were, though they don’t get quite as many tourists. Nearly everyone’s teeth are stained bright red from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant, and the streets are spotted crimson from the juices. Red teeth or not, we met some great folks in Ndendo. In particular, we traded t-shirts for tapa (bark cloth with traditional designs painted on it) with a man from Nea, a village on the southeast coast of Ndendo. Last February, an earthquake near Ndendo triggered a tsunami and this village took it head on. Our new friend told us all the houses, except for his, which was built higher than many others, were washed away and gardens destroyed. One woman died. The gardens are recovering, but people are still living in tents and they need tools for rebuilding. We felt a bit foolish for not having realized this and walked over the hill to visit his village as soon as we arrived, and wished we have bush knives to donate. We did meet an aid worker from New Zealand in Lata, the main town on the island, who said that, because the island is so remote, they were still waiting for supplies to arrive to help with the relief effort. There is also a Red Cross office in Lata, which, I’m sure, could use help. From Ndendo, we had time for only a couple of stops on our way to Honiara, where we had to complete our check-in with customs and immigration. Our trip to Honiara was another overnight, and this time, Thor decided it was my turn for a ruckus, and threw a temper tantrum. Shortly after dark, I braced for a gust as the dark mass of clouds on the horizon finally caught us. We never got much wind, but Thor’s hammer ricocheted above us as a rain of Biblical proportions was unleashed. For three hours, I could see no further than the phosphorescent glow of our wake. As the rain pours in a torrent, it flattens the crests of the waves into an eerie glow. It’s is quite disorienting at night, as the waves rise up beside you and you squint into the pelting raindrops to gauge the wind direction from the arrow atop the mast. At one point, I called Rob out to help as the wind switched abruptly, then died, and the boat wallowed. As we struggled with the sails, the light that I had thought was a beacon on shore suddenly turned into a giant cargo ship and materialized right behind us. Visibility was so bad we hadn’t been able to see the boat until it was nearly on top of us, and the VHF and the radar gave us nothing but tatic with all the lightening. In the morning, the thunder storm abated, and we eventually made it to Honiara. Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands today, sits on the edge of Iron Bottom Sound, so named because of all the World War II battleships littering the depths. Guadalcanal (the island on which Honiara is located), was the site of significant battles in World War II as the Allied forces fought back the Japanese advance in the Pacific. The war still shapes Solomon Islanders’ views of the outside world today (for instance, they’re generally fond of Americans, who they saw as coming to their rescue during the war; they are less fond of their former colonial administrators, who they thought were leaving them for dead during the war, and who they think might be a bit snobby anyway). At the time of the war, the colonial capital was Tulagi, a nearby island. Tulagi, however, was bombed to pieces in the war, and the capital was moved to Honiara. Perhaps for that reason, Honiara does not have a well-protected harbor like most island capitals do. It’s quite exposed to the swells, which would be tolerable except that there is also a big problem with theft. A couple of the other yachts at anchor had hired locals as security guards for their boats at night; we just opted not to sleep very well. Because of that, we didn’t stay long in Honiara, though there was a museum, and a few other things we would like to have seen there. We did, however, make time for a couple of well-deserved ice cream cones. Instead, we sailed over to the very welcoming village at Roderick Bay in the Florida Islands, a theoretically pleasant day sail. But, we failed to heed the giant, swirling cloud hanging over Guadalcanal (we thought it would stay put–it had been there all night). This time, we got a couple of miles from Honiara when it became apparent that the cloud was not staying put. We must have angered Uira this time, a Polynesian deity, who let lightning fly from his armpits with a vengeance. Just when we thought the initial gust was over, we found ourselves blasted nearly on our sides, with white caps suddenly frothing all around us and a wall of rain fast approaching. Chaos reigned for the next 20 miles. The drifter, our lightest sail which was flying just before the squall, was down, but still sitting on deck, when the squall hit. It caught on a life line and ripped badly. The jib sheet jammed and Rob had to go out on the bowsprit to roll in the jib by hand, getting doused in the waves all the while. The dinghy, on deck in anticipation of a pleasant, easy sail, got in the way of everything. Rob tried to raise the staysail and accidentally let go of the halyard, which dangled out of reach over the side most of the way there. I forgot to close the thru-hull for the kitchen sink, and as we got pushed on our side, salt water gushed up through the sink and drenched the kitchen. Thing flew everywhere inside the boat and the chart ended up in the water, a soggy mess. Such is sailing in the Squallomons. But, we finally made it to Roderick Bay, soaked, and found ourselves welcomed to a calm, secure anchorage where we had a comfortable spot to clean up our mess and fix the drifter. We spent a couple of days there snorkeling (great coral and lots of new fish for us), hiking up a ridge to get a better look at the chatty cockatoos, and trading for carvings and vegetables. Big canoes manned by little girls, toting their tiny siblings, maneuvered up to our boat daily offering us coconuts, papaya, eggplant, kumara, island cabbage, even ngali nuts (a traditionally important nut that’s quite tasty), and wild mushrooms! The girls, with big, sun-bleached ‘fros, oversized t-shirts, and a lot of spunk, are too cute to refuse and happy to accept whatever you offer as a trade. Consequently, we’ve adopted a novel approach to grocery shopping in the major towns: We now buy a lot of stuff we don’t need so that we can trade it for things we do need at the next stop. No other village has had quite such an impressive roving market (the Roderick Bay folks sell their veggies at the market in Honiara), but there’s always something on offer, and it seems like good policy to participate in the local economy. After Roderick Bay we fast forward a bit. We sailed to Malaita from Roderick Bay, but I wrote about that in my last post, so we’ll skip Malaita and move on to the western province, where we are now sitting, and waiting for a thunderstorm to pass. There has been a lot of rain lately, and I think perhaps the Melanesian deity responsible for rain and thunder is wroth with us. Unfortunately, although I’ve been asking in nearly every village, I have been unable to find out what heathen spirit had squalls and storms in his charge in “time befoa,” so we have not been able to offer libations to the appropriate devil-devil. In Malaita, however, they did tell me that if you set tongs in a bowl and put it in an open place, it will stop the lightening. Perhaps I can trade a smelly t-shirt for some tongs somewhere… The western province, which includes Marovo Lagoon, is the part of the Solomons that sees the most tourists, and our time here has basically been one big snorkeling extravaganza, interspersed with looking at carvings. The carvings, which the carvers bring to us by canoe, are beautiful, some of the finest in the Pacific. Many are carvings of kastom spirits and come with great stories, but they also come with big price tags. We have tried to trade for a few, but no one seems very impressed by our wares (this probably won’t come as a big surprise to you if you have ever seen the clothing Rob wears). In Marovo Lagoon, we saw staka fish. Staka big fish, and staka sharks. And beautiful coral. The Solomons are the eastern edge of the coral triangle, the area encompassing Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomons, which has the highest underwater biodiversity in the world, and it’s noticeable. We are seeing lots of new, colorful things: soft corals that look like giant, purple, broccoli bobbing in the currents; huge, red sea fans sticking abruptly off the edge of steep cliffs of coral; purple and yellow sea squirts that look ready to pot; enormous anemones with clown fish hiding among the tentacles; lacy sea slugs and sea hares slowly chewing through the algae; massive sponges with intricate patterns; and branching forests of green, yellow, purple, and blue corals sheltering thousands of cowering, tiny fish. On the islands near Peava, at the southern end of the lagoon, the shallow reef, every inch of it covered in vibrant coral, projects out from the island for a couple dozen yards, then you swim right off the edge, over a sheer drop into the deep blue. Sharks stare right back at you as you marvel over the landscape. Some of the highlights from the last couple of weeks underwater have been schools of huge bumphead parrotfish (a 4-foot long algae eater that looks kind of like a submarine, and is a positive indicator of healthy reef ecosystems), a big school of intimidating barracuda circling us, an octopus who oozed new camouflage colors as he lurked from one hiding place to the next, large schools of big fish, and, best of all, a sea horse hiding in the sea grass. We’ve been looking for a sea horse for a long time, pretty much since we left home, and, admittedly, we didn’t find this one entirely on our own. Some locals found if first and brought it over to the boat in a bowl to show us. Then they released it, and we decided to go snorkeling in the sea grass until we found it in its natural habitat. They are very good hiders, but we found him, and he was absolutely sea horse. Unfortunately, some of our snorkeling fun has been sullied by the swarms of tiny, brown jellyfish that infested some of the best spots in the lagoon and viciously attacked me. They come in clouds of thousands, though they are so small you can barely see them, but that means they get stuck in your swimsuit lining and just keep stinging. A week later, I still had itchy, blistering welts everywhere and looked like I’d been rolling in poison ivy. They’re still there now, but they are improving. Rob, on the other hand, didn’t have a single itch. This proves that, as I’ve long suspected, jellyfish are not aimlessly drifting on the currents, subject to the whims of wind and water. No, they are malicious, spiteful devil-devils that move with intent and purpose, and they hate me. They are trying to kill me. And this is why we should save the sea turtles. Sea turtles are lovely, silly creatures that hurt no one, and eat a lot of jellyfish. Turtles good. Jellyfish bad. Need more sea turtles. Now, it is time for my annual haircut. For some reason, my expert stylist, Rob, who is setting up the salon, is calling for the WD-40…

Staka Storying

Today, we met “the last old man,” the last traditional priest, of Bitaama, on Malaita Island in the Solomon Islands. He is 109 years old, and he is still walking around under his own power. In 1943, he served as a scout for the U.S. Marines in World War II, leading Allied forces through the dense jungles of Guadalcanal and other nearby islands and helping to track Japanese forces. He showed us a scar where a Japanese soldier stabbed him in the back with a five-fingered knife. With no time to reach for his bush knife (machete) to defend himself, he grabbed the soldier’s neck in a stranglehold and bit his throat, killing the soldier and saving himself. He is also the last man with the power to call the dolphins. The people here come from the sea. They were once dolphins, but came out of the ocean and became people. Despite this heritage, the people of Bitaama hunted dolphins until two years ago. They eat the dolphin meat and use the teeth to pay brideprice-a man must pay 1,000 dolphin teeth to the family of the woman he wishes to marry. In a traditional ceremony, the chief could call the dolphins, and this is the last man who knows how to perform the ceremony (when the missionaries convinced the Bitaama people that this was devil worship, they abandoned the ceremony, and now the chief calls the dolphins through prayer). The people then paddle traditional canoes out to the ocean and herd the dolphins into the harbor, stringing a net across the entrance to trap them. They kill hundreds of dolphins in one hunt, and people from all over Malaita come to buy the dolphin meat. Thankfully, the dolphin slaughter stopped, at least for now. Earth Island Institute worked with the community to ban the killing of the dolphins. In exchange, Earth Island Institute is providing a sawmill to help with a community housing project, and will help the community turn live dolphins into tourist dollars. The ban is temporary, but, for the past two years, the Bitaama people have not killed the dolphins and are instead working to build bungalows and talking about how to herd the tourists to Bitaama. Instead of paying the brideprice in dolphin teeth, they will pay it in cash-5,000 Solomon dollars (over $700 USD), which is a lot of money for islanders with no steady income. We hope they get a lot of tourists, so that the ban will continue. Malaita is an island with a bit of a rough reputation. In the early 2000’s, serious ethnic tensions broke out in the Solomons with tensions between the Gwale (the people of Guadalcanal) and Malaitans at the heart of it. There has been a lot of resentment toward Malaitans, who contributed their share of the violence (so they kidnapped the prime minister…big deal…). Since then, some people have recommended staying away from Malaita. But, we felt like we’d be leaving a glaring gap in our understanding of the Solomons if we didn’t make a short visit to meet the folks who seem to get blamed for everything. We are glad we did. We made it a short stop and only chose two places to visit, but, because the Malaitans hold strongly to their customs, and because they’ve had few sailboats since the ethnic tensions (no boats have been here in six years), the people are thrilled to have visitors and we’ve learned lots from these stops. Last night, the chief in Bitaama spent most of the night fishing near our boat to be sure no one tried to steal anything. He made it tabu for anyone to come onto the boat. We’ve had staka curious pikinini come out to visit us-most in canoes, but those who can’t find a canoe just swim out. They all want to know where we’re from and how the boat works, and some of them just want to hang out and swim by the boat. They’ve all been well-mannered and smiley, and even the teenage boys who look like they might be the right age to be punks have turned out to be great. They’ve been posing for photos and raced us swimming, and even respected the tufala rule I imposed for sitting in the dinghy. Rob is horse from talking all day, and we’re a bit worn out from all the “storying,” but we’ve never had such a welcome anywhere. Moments after we dropped the anchor, the afternoon school bell rang and about 20 kids showed up at the boat. As far as we can tell, there’s no actual danger that anyone will take anything from the boat, but the chief is determined to show us that it’s a safe place to visit so that more boats will show up. He says they had “staka boats” before the ethnic tensions, but not many since. Before we stopped here, we went to Lau Lagoon, just a few miles away on Malaita. There, the people live on artificial islands they build on the reef to help keep mosquito free in malaria country. The largest island is over one square kilometer, and they can take two years to build. Then they build their houses on stilts on the island. The lagoon also has the largest sea grass meadows in the Solomons, so we thought we might find dugongs. We did see one, but it turns out some of the folks in the lagoon (the ones from “notha saet” of the point) eat the dugongs, so there aren’t very many. There used to be “staka dugongs.” We visited the chief in Gelaulu, the first village we came to in the lagoon, and another village which has had no boats in sometime. When we stepped ashore, everyone came out with big smiles to say hello. Old men and women, tattooed from head to toe, and with kastom designs etched faintly into their cheeks, smiled broadly through betel nut-stained teeth. The last old man there beamed through thick glasses as he introduced us to his wife. A younger man scurried up a palm to get us coconuts, and everyone was thrilled when we showed them photos from back home. After our visit, the chief came out to the boat in his sailing canoe to “story with us” about the island. He told us he had met with his brothers and talked with all the people in his territory to tell them no visitors at night (we had a 2am visitor on our first night, before visiting the village, but it turns out he just wanted to leave us some fish), and to be sure they would treat us well. He said there were “staka robbers” in the village a couple of miles away, and so while we were in the lagoon, we should stay right where we were anchored. He arranged for a canoe to circle our boat all night to be sure no robbers showed up, but since he thought it was too rough for a canoe to be out that night, he offered to sleep on deck for security. We declined the offer, and told him we would take turns staying awake instead, but we had no trouble. Nonetheless, the chief stayed on the boat storying with us for some time, glaring at any boats that passed by from other villages to make sure they knew the big man was on our side. From his stories, it sounds like things might be a bit rough around the edges in parts of Malaita, but we met only friendly folks curious about us and our boat and were thoroughly impressed with all the efforts the chief went to to be sure we enjoyed our stop. We stayed only two nights to limit the likelihood of less friendly visitors from “notha saet,” but felt like we might have missed out by not spending more time learning stories from the chief. From the people we met and the stories we heard, it seemed like traditions hold strong in Lau Lagoon, and we would have liked to hear more. But what we’ve learned most of all is that Malaitans got staka storying stamina.

I friend you, you got t-shirt?

(from the power line poles in Luganville) Bislama blong awesome.
(from the power line poles in Luganville)
Bislama blong awesome.

We’ve been making admirably slow progress northward, stopping for heaps of snorkeling and spending plenty of time visiting villages. We’re currently in Luganville, enjoying the luxury of fresh water rinse-offs, restocking our food stash, and closing out our cruising permit before we move on to some of Vanuatu’s remote northern islands on our way to the Solomon Islands. Here’s a quick update on some of the highlights along the way:

More dugongs! Because I didn’t get to post a photo last time, here’s one this time! We went back to our favorite dugonging spot, watched several dugongs flicking their tails at us, and slipped in the water to watch. Rob had three circling him at once!


Rom dances We sailed to Ambrym, an island with twin volcanic craters that tint the sky red at night. Ambrym is the heart of sorcery in Vanuatu, and also home to some of the most beautiful tam tams (carved wooden drums), and sand paintings. The rom dance is a ceremonial dance from northwest Ambrym. It is traditionally a dance for men and by men. A man seeking to increase his status in the community arranges to buy, with pigs, yams, and money, the design for a mask. He sweats over many shells of kava in the men’s house with the owner of the mask to learn the design. Then, many other men pay for the privilege of drinking more kava and joining the dance. Eventually, there is a performance. All of the men don elaborate costumes made of banana fibers, drink much kava, and come out to stomp their feet a lot and chant. The costumes are burned after the ceremony to keep the spirit of the dance from causing trouble in the village.

Rom dancing in AmbrymAccording to legend, long ago, women designed the first masks. A woman seeking to win over a man’s affections made a beautiful mask in secret. A sneaky guy, however, discovered the women making the masks. Putting the end to those shenanigans, he took the mask. Interpret that how you will, the rom dance was born. Women are not allowed to carve masks anymore.

The Big Sista Vanuatu’s beloved ferry, the Big Sista, is smaller than any of Alaska’s feries, but she plies the boisterous waters of Vanuatu–open ocean, trade winds, strong currents creating big waves–and she is always at capacity (or above…). People love her. She shows up at 3am, miles from town, and people paddle canoes out to greet her. They light bonfires on the beach to guide her in, and she hovers off the beach while a launch takes people to shore.

A sailing canoe in the Maskelyne Islands.  People here canoe to their gardens daily, so there are lots of nice outriggers.
A sailing canoe in the Maskelyne Islands. People here canoe to their gardens daily, so there are lots of nice outriggers.

She makes a weekly loop, stopping by many small villages on her way between the two “big” towns in Vanuatu, and collects fish, veggies, and carvings from villagers to sell in Vila and Luganville. Then friends and relatives pile off the boat with fresh supplies for the folks back in the village.

We were surprised to hear that she’d be pulling into a tiny nook we anchored in on an uninhabited island one night. She was delayed with an engine breakdown, so the excitement was postponed until daytime (we were glad of that, as we thought we’d get run over at night). People in canoes and motor boats started arriving before daylight and the beach was piled with people by morning. A few canoes stopped by our boat to chat. Some asked for rope for their cows, others for fishing hooks, magazines, colored pencils for the pikinini. One asked us about independence day celebrations back home (Vanuatu’s was last week), and we exchanged stories. As Rob began to wax elegant about glaciers, our new friend interupted: “Excuse me, Rob. Thank you very much, I enjoy your stories. You story, I story–I friend you now! You got t-shirt from USA so I can remember you?” We invited some people aboard, we gave away or traded a few things we had, others we said no to, but all of our visitors gave us big smiles regardless.

When the Big Sista finally arrived, the folks on the beach directed the launch to avoid our anchor lines (we had 3 out…it was a tight spot…many rocks…strong currents). When all the loading and unloading was finished, people started to pile their canoes with crates and boxes, and even mattresses. We watched a flotilla of fully loaded canoes row off to their villages, scattered among the islands. We love the Big Sista, too, and whoever named it was a genius.

After the Big Sista, the canoes row home.
After the Big Sista, the canoes row home.

More critters! In the same anchorage we shared with Big Sista, we spent a lot of time snorkeling. Hours and hours. Usually, we found ourselves caught in surprisingly strong currents, and they always seem to be pushing us out to sea.

After swimming around the same rock several times, we finally discovered an evil space alien hovering above the coral. Upon closer inspection, we determined that this was a big, brilliantly camouflaged squid. He hovered above purple corals in a mottled, dark pattern, then he flew over white sand and instantly turned translucent. Mr. Squidly was our friendly neighbor for a few days, and we came over to harass him, err… gently observe him, daily. Once, we came toward evening and found two squids! They danced. Mr. Squidly approached, and the little squid retreated. Mr. Squidly got too daring, and the little one flared the inky black flash of death. It went from mottled to jet black in an instant roll of color, then back to its first disguise. I was ready to watch battle. Rob thinks it was more of a dance of love–a bit more, “hubba hubba, look how fast I can change colors, Big Daddy.” Our on-board library, unfortunately, does not cover squid antics in sufficient detail to settle the dispute.

Our friendly neighbor, Mr. Squidly.  Actually, I'm pretty sure he was happy to see us leave.
Our friendly neighbor, Mr. Squidly. Actually, I’m pretty sure he was happy to see us leave.

In another spot, we managed to see a giant grouper–the biggest fish we’ve seen yet. They get to be about eight feet long and are absolutely massive. We’ve had some fantastic underwater turtle watching in a number of spots as well. And we found a couple of pipefish (they’re almost like sea horses, but not quite), and some pretty lionfish, and a giant ray, and some huge butterflyfish, and a bumphead parrotfish, and a crazy shrimp thing, and lobsters, and sea fans, and snakes, and garden eels, and…

I think this is a hawksbill, but we don't have very good turtle ID'ing guides, so I can't be sure.
I think this is a hawksbill, but we don’t have very good turtle ID’ing guides, so I can’t be sure.

So, that’s pretty much what we’ve been up to in Vanuatu. We expect to start heading up to the Solomon Islands over the weekend, and we’re pretty sure we’re going to have just as much fun there as we have in Vanuatu!

Hard at work on dugong patrol
Hard at work on dugong patrol


Our quest for the past week and a half has been a noble one: find dugongs. Dugongs, in case you are not familiar with them, are like manatees. They are also called sea cows, as they graze through meadows of sea grass, snout to the sand. Some people believe that when early sailors reported mermaid sightings, they were really seeing dugongs and manatees. This seems like a bit of a stretch when you consider that dugongs are closely related to elephants, but sailors spent a lot of time at sea, eating from a pickle barrel and begging for grog. In furtherance of our quest, we headed for Lamen Bay on the island of Epi. Lamen Bay is, or was, the home of Bondas the friendly dugong. Bondas liked to have her bristly belly scratched. Sadly, Bondas has either moved on to other pastures, or, perhaps, to that great sea grass meadow in the sky. We had heard rumors to that effect, but chose to ignore them until the locals confirmed them. Now, the dugongs are more frequently seen at Lamen Island, a lovely island with white sand, friendly people, beautiful coral, and a clear lagoon. But, the island is a wind-blasted paddle across an open channel, and our dinghy was not really up to the task. We swam every inch of Lamen Bay instead, and we saw lots of turtles and a couple of sharks, but no dugongs. We ramped up the quest. After watching all of the locals paddle from Lamen Island to their gardens on Epi, we decided we needed to find an outrigger canoe. We managed to secure ourselves one very leaky dugout. I think Tasso, the owner of said canoe, only let us use it because he didn’t think we’d get very far. Apparently, white people usually just go in circles in an outrigger canoe, so they have some dink-around kayaks four tourist rentals. We insisted on the canoe. An hour or so later, we paddled our canoe through the reef to Lamen Island, much to the amusement of our soon-to-be-new-friends on shore. They weren’t very impressed with our paddling skills because they noticed a lot of not paddling. In our defense, we were only not paddling when we were bailing out the boat. Or taking pictures. Our new friend Jake showed us around the island (literally, we walked around the whole thing), and told us that high tide is the best time for dugonging. We decided to go snorkeling anyway, and worked our way to the outside of the reef, seeking sea grass, though frequently distracted by soft corals and interesting fish. Just as I was squeezing through a narrow stretch of coral, Rob popped out of the water yelling, “DUGONG!” I swam frantically. The dugong was gone, probably not surprisingly, and Rob hadn’t had a clear enough view for a positive ID. We needed a plan. We decided on strategic synchronized swimming. We linked arms and calmly, with minimal splashing, kicked in unison toward Rob’s last dugong sighting, which is to say, toward the middle of the ocean. We were intensely focused on our quest. Except when I was distracted by the giant yellow-masked angel fish and other pretty things underwater. It was at this precise moment, as I hummed my new dugong song to myself underwater, that I thought about how hard all of my friends at home must be working on this tropical Wednesday afternoon. Alas, we were unable to find the dugong, so we decided to take the locals’ advice and go sit on shore and wait for high tide. The approach of darkness came before high tide, and we still hadn’t seen a dugong. Jake came back with his grandson to chat with us and asked gently when we thought we might start paddling back, mentioning once more the strong currents that come with the new moon. We invited him to come visit us at our boat and decided to head back before dark. I swam halfway, just in case. Tasso and friends were waiting for us when we pulled back into Lamen Bay with about a foot of water in the canoe. They’d asked their friends on the island to send a text message when we left, so they could watch for us and send a boat out if we didn’t make it. Which explains why so many people had come out to see whether we were still snorkeling… We stuck around in Lamen Bay for a couple more days, snorkel-scouring the bay, but had no luck. As we were about to leave, Jake paddled up to the boat and was disappointed we were going. We left, but then we decided it was time we learn our lesson and take the time to return the hospitality we’ve been shown, so we turned around, found Jake ashore, and took him sailing around his island. It was the right choice. If you ever visit Vanuatu, go to Lamen Island. Jake’s planning to open a guest house where you can stay, and we can direct you to him. It’d be a fantastic place to stay for awhile. We moved on to Malekula, the next island north, in our continued search for dugongs. We found brilliant sea grass in our first anchorage, but no dugongs. We moved to another bay, and today, luck was with us. Not an hour after we anchored, Rob saw dugongs to starboard. We watched the dark shapes below the water and saw their vacuum snouts surfacing. They started to swim away. We had no time to lose. We abandoned our lunches and slipped quietly into the dinghy to follow. They were gone, so we decided to try a stealthy snorkel approach. We swam along the edges of the shallow area where we had seen them, and watched coral and fish. I dove down to check out some colorful coral about 15 feet down and snapped a couple of photos. Just as I ran out of breath and turned to surface, I looked up and there, three feet away, looking me right in the eye was a big, beautiful dugong. We could see its big snout and the scars on its back as it flicked its tail gracefully and circled us slowly, then swam away. After our long quest, we’ve been well rewarded. We got to snorkel with dugongs three times today and we’ll certainly try again tomorrow. In the meantime, we have an orange sun setting over the reef, and, with a clear sky, we’re hoping we might be able to see the glow of the volcanoes on the neighboring island, Ambrym, as it gets dark tonight.